SSP Program Data and Reporting Hacks

Interacting with Participants: Best Practices for Data Collection at SSPs

It’s important for SSPs to ground any research or data collection they do in the insights and best practices for working with marginalized folks. The following are some of the best practices for collecting data from participants in harm reduction programs based on the experiences of harm reduction leaders:

  • Be transparent with participants – Explain to your participants why your program collects data, why you ask for specific data, and how it is related to things like grant reporting that help the program. SSP participants are often suspicious of disclosing their information because they have been harmed by it. Being explicit about your motivations and needs regarding data collection helps build trust with participants.
  • Be transparent with staff – If staff do not understand why you collect certain data, they cannot possibly be expected to explain it to participants.
  • Be human first – Data collection that comes across as mechanical or rote can alienate people and make programs and interventions less effective.
  • Ask about behavior – Because some questions can make folks feel unseen, judged, and defensive, try to minimize any questions that refer to people’s identities and completely avoid those that assume anything about them. Instead, try to ask direct questions about behavior or ask questions in a manner that does not presume how a person may identify.
  • Be direct – Asking direct, nonjudgmental questions is always preferable to speaking euphemistically.
  • Ask open ended questions – Open-ended questions are questions that are open to interpretation and do not offer a finite response. “Where did you grow up?” is a closed-ended question because there is only one response, but “Can you tell me more about where you grew up?” is an open-ended one because it invites the responder to offer more information. Open-ended questions aren’t always appropriate or desirable, but they often feel less judgmental and presumptive especially when discussing behaviors folks may be sensitive about.
  • Don’t assume identity – Asking demographic information can sometimes be awkward because assuming identity can sometimes make people feel unseen and resentful. On the other hand, not assuming an identity that may seem self-evident can also make people feel invisible or make the interaction awkward. Harm reduction leaders report that a middle path, asking if a seemingly obvious identity is correct, is often the best method for collecting this data. This may look like asking “You appear to be (demographic), is that true?” or “I would assume you’re (demographic); is that right?” both of which acknowledge appearance while still leaving room for correction.
  • Train staff effectively – Train staff on both why data is being collected and how to do it in the most effective and efficient manner.
  • Minimize data collection, especially during service provision – Data collection is necessary, but it can act as an artificial barrier that interferes with social interaction and rapport building, and it can alienate participants. This is deeply problematic given that harm reduction relies on building community and trust to be effective.
  • Study up – There are many resources and trainings in the public domain on how to do effective public health program evaluation; please see the resources sections of the Hacks for first stops. These resources can help you build more effective and impactful programs because the best programs rely on peer reviewed evidence.
  • Ask for help – One of the primary purposes for technical assistance partners like NASTAD and the National Harm Reduction Coalition is their ability to help guide and support programs with evaluation.
  • Do not be afraid to question your funders – If you feel like a particular set of data or data collection devices is too invasive or burdensome for your program or participants, don’t hesitate to ask your funder if it is necessary. If you choose to do this, be ready to discuss your concerns; your funder may not be able to change the data collection requirements (or they may), but the pushback can be beneficial for them to hear regardless of whether or not it leads to immediate change. And as the saying goes, “closed mouths don’t get fed”.
  • Incentivize it – Where possible, programs should offer incentives to participants for participating in data collection – especially when that data collection takes significant time (more than five minutes).
  • Give cash – When possible, programs should give cash or cash app payments to participants as incentives. Though gift cards are popular with programs, especially those concerned with “encouraging drug use” by giving folks cash, the reality is that participants routinely sell gift cards for cash values below the card’s face value. This means that instead of denying participants cash, all the program has done is guarantee that a third party is benefiting from the effort to micromanage how participants spend the money they have earned.

More Resources

Don’t reinvent the wheel
During our development Harm Reduction Hacks have collected together a large number of resources from around the web you can find these in our resource folder in Google Docs. We are also always looking for more so help us by suggesting any resources we may have missed.
Suggest a Resource

External Resources

Collected from around the web
There are a number of external resources that contributed to the development of Harm Reduction Hacks. Here are a selection relating to this section:


The hacks on this site are shared with you under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence. This allows you (with attribution) to adapt content for your own use, although we do ask you to then also allow others to have equal access to anything you develop. More details of this licence can be found on the Creative Commons website.


We do not claim that this is an exhaustive set of strategies, shortcuts, or tips for running an SSP. What we do suggest is that Harm Reduction Hacks offers down-to-earth, practical information for being a better leader, starting and running an SSP, and providing syringe access services. We feel we can say this with confidence because the Hacks are based on interviews with, and the experiences of, literally generations of people who have been doing harm reduction work.

Please note that nothing in this guide should be construed as legal advice. Please consult an attorney local to your area to ensure your program is in compliance with all local, state and federal regulations that apply to your situation. 

Harm Reduction Hacks site design and implimentation by Nigel Brunsdon

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